With its super fat straws and black tapioca pearls bobbing at the bottom, boba tea — also known as bubble tea, pearl milk tea or just milk tea — is by nature an eye-catching drink. And it's popularity is quickly catching on in the Inland Northwest.
Boba tea isn't new; it's been around for several decades after being introduced in Taiwan in the late 1980s and quickly gaining popularity around Asia and the world. But you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the recent spurt of new boba tea shops opening around the region in the past year or two.
One of those newcomers is BocoPop, a Liberty Lake bubble tea and coffee shop that launched in late 2020.
BocoPop owner Steven Kelly thinks the main reason bubble tea suddenly seems to be springing up everywhere here is the drink's virtually unlimited variations.
"It's a specialty drink that can be extremely customized beyond tapioca and milk," Kelly says.
At BocoPop, for example, house-crafted concoctions range from the customer favorite Tiger Milk, a creamy, caramel-colored brown sugar milk blend with tapioca pearls, to the vivid pink-and-orange Dragon Eye Tea made by combining lychee jasmine green tea and dragon fruit puree.
"It's definitely eye-catching and cool looking," Kelly says. "People eat and drink with their eyes, and we take a lot of pride in the aesthetics of the boba."
Beyond the most traditional combination of tea, milk and tapioca pearls, boba drinks include smoothies and refreshing, fruity teas.
Tapioca pearls, made from the starchy white flesh of the cassava tuber, also come in different flavors, colors and shapes beyond the standard black. Popping boba are colorful pearls filled with fruit juice that explode in the mouth when chewed. Lychee jellies and other chewy, fruit-flavored chunks can also take the place of tapioca.
While tapioca pearl imports have been especially impacted by supply chain issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, local shop owners say they're not worried about running out. Some have ordered slightly more boba than usual as a precaution, yet other components like boba straws and drink cups are also occasionally difficult to source.
And then there's cheese foam.
"Cheese foam is not like cheddar or Kraft singles," Kelly explains. "It's like a cheesecake, and it works with tea the same way creamer works with coffee. It makes a rich creaminess, not quite the same consistency as a milkshake, that accentuates all the flavor."
Another factor contributing to bubble tea's resurgence in the Inland Northwest is how easy it is to find in bigger metropolitan areas, like Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the San Francisco Bay area. Until recently, transplants from those areas had found the region lacking in bubble tea options.
Sisters Cynthia and Mindy Bach, who in 2019 started their mobile boba business Tea's Company as a farmers market pop-up, say going out with friends or family to get bubble tea was common in their Bay Area community growing up.
"I think it's interesting when people refer to boba as a trend, because I guess as an Asian American person, it was really normal for us to have," says Mindy Bach.
Where to Find Bubble Tea in the INW
5767 N. Atlas Rd., Coeur d'Alene
Black Straw Tea Bar & Kitchen
11808 E. Sprague Ave., Spokane Valley
4750 N. Division St. (Northtown Mall)
21980 E. Country Vista Dr., Liberty Lake
14700 E. Indiana Ave. (Spokane Valley Mall)
Kokoro Ramen & Boba Tea Time
509 N. Sullivan Rd., Spokane Valley
Lalozy Food & Coffee
13917 E. Trent Ave., Spokane Valley
Le's Teriyaki & Pho
2018 N. Hamilton St.
Poke Express & Boba Tea Time
12208 N. Division, 113 W. Indiana Ave., 2829 E. 29th Ave.
905 S. Grand Blvd.
mobile food trailer
The Tea Boba Bar
1227 W. Summit Pkwy.
Vina Asian Restaurant
2303 N. Ash St.
Recent changes in the boba market have also boosted the beverage, she notes.
"It's like reinventing the old boba, using real milk and actual fruit purees [instead of powders]. Some shops are even making their own boba instead of shipping it in dried," Bach says.
At Tea's Company, ordering boba drinks is a simplified process. This makes for both a newbie-friendly and an ultra-customizable experience for boba lovers.
First customers choose a base, either milk tea or fruit tea. Two non-tea drinks, strawberry and taro milk, are also offered. Then pick how much sweetener you want in the drink, and any add-ons: boba, jellies and sea salt cream, as well as nondairy milk substitutions.
While Tea's Company took a hiatus last year due to the pandemic, this season it's on weekly rotation at the Fairwood, Kendall Yards, South Perry and Spokane Valley farmers markets. Eventually, the Bach sisters hope to open a permanent tea shop.
Other local boba shop owners have also gone into the business so as to share a familiar beverage with the community.
Zane Huang, who came to the area by way of China and then Las Vegas, started his popular Black Straw Tea Bar inside Kobe Hibachi Sushi and Bar in 2019. He moved to a space in Spokane Valley in mid-2020 and added a full pan-Asian food menu.
"The reason why bubble tea is popular in Spokane is that many people have moved to Spokane from different places in recent years," Huang says. "Many [of those] people know bubble tea."
Co-owners of the Tea Boba Bar in Kendall Yards, which debuted last month, Tong Yan Liu and Colleen Wilbur had also caught on to how popular boba tea has become in bigger cities. When Paper & Cup coffee shop closed last year, the duo saw an opportunity to open a walk-up boba tea shop in the space, and quickly began researching the specialty drink. The Tea's owners also work in management at Umi Sushi Bar & Kitchen just down the block.
"We thought, 'Why not?' We were just doing to-go at the time because of the lockdown, and so we took on the new project because we thought it would be really good for the Kendall Yards neighborhood because of how much pedestrian traffic we have," Wilbur says.
The Tea's drink menu is formatted to encourage customization, and ranges from milk tea to smoothies and even Red Bull Italian sodas. By customer request, Thai iced tea is being added soon, and when it gets cold, Wilbur says they'll introduce hot drinks. Boba at the Tea (and most other local shops) is made fresh several times daily.
"There is a growing market for bubble tea, and a growing understanding and kind of knowing of its existence," Wilbur says. "But also, I think part of it is the changes we've seen due to coronavirus, and as well as some new development with the population growth. Business owners are looking for concepts, and knowing people are so fond of bubble tea, it's just a good fit right now." ♦